Remembering Kumaritashvili: Former VANOC staffer recalls experience trackside

Nodar Kumaritashvili, Georgian luge, luge death, Vancouver Olympics, VANOC, Luge Federation
Nodar Kumaritashvili, Georgian luge, luge death, Vancouver Olympics, VANOC, Luge Federation

Four years ago, tragedy struck the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, putting a dark cloud over what turned out to be an historic celebration of sport for Canada and the world.

It was on Feb. 12, 2010, that Georgian luger Nodar David Kumaritashvili, 21, suffered a fatal crash during a training run for the competition in Whistler. The accident happened on the day of the opening ceremony, as Kumaritashvili became the fourth athlete to have died during training for the Winter Olympics.

Most Canadians – and likely many from around the world watching – will remember when Kumaritashvili, who first began to luge when he was 13, lost control and crashed. The horror of the incident extended beyond the tragedy itself – society reared its ugly head as the gruesome video immediately went viral through YouTube, creating a headache for organizers and those associated with both the sledding sports and the Vancouver Games.

One person trackside for the horrific crash in person was Todd Devlin, a then-28-year-old reporter who was hired by VANOC to work for the Olympic News Service as a flash quote reporter. His role was to gather quotes following sledding sports practices and events and feed the athlete quotes from the bobsled, luge and skeleton events at the Whistler Sliding Centre for transcription and use by news agencies.

On Feb. 12, 2010, Devlin was working on what was supposed to be a comfortable training day for the luge event, which was the first sliding event at the Games. He was stationed trackside where athletes would conduct interviews after their run through the mixed media zone. Given it was a quiet training run day, Devlin recalls there were just a few media members at the track and no fans present.

While working in the mixed zone, Devlin recalled that there had been some crashes already during training, and there had been some injuries.

And then came something much worse.

“There was a TV monitor in the mixed zone that carried live footage of the runs,’’ Devlin said in a recent interview done by email. “I had my back turned to the TV at the time, so I did not see the crash happen live. However, I heard several gasps from those in the mixed zone and the surrounding area. We were elevated from where the crash took place, but it was maybe 100 metres away. I did not know the severity of the injury right away, although I could sense it was going to be bad.”

Kumaritashvili came from a family of lugers, and one of his relatives was the founder of organized sled sports in Georgia, and his father competed when he was younger. A cousin of Kumaritashvili on his father's side was the head of the Georgian Luge Federation and Kumaritashvili began competing in the 2008-09 Luge World Cup, where he finished 55th out of 62 racers.

“I think at one point, I figured he had a concussion and that it was a significant injury. I'll never forget the moment when I mentioned that to Dave Perkins, a reporter (now retired) from the Toronto Star, and he replied that he thought the athlete could be dead,” Devlin said. “My heart sank. Honestly, that didn't even dawn on me. Or perhaps I just didn't want to think about that being a possibility.”

Devlin remained in the mixed zone with a few colleagues while members of several media outlets made their way down to the site of the crash to learn more about what was happening.

“I knew it was severe…. I can't even fathom what it was like for the first aid crew who were on site,” Devlin said.

Soon after, luge training was shut down for the day, and Devlin and other staff members were sent to eat lunch, and it was there they heard on TV that Kumaritashvili had died.

“It happened at such an awful time for the Games themselves, just hours before the Opening Ceremonies,” Devlin said. “And, of course, all of the anticipation and excitement heading into the Games was extinguished.”

While the VANOC organizers and the international sport organization responsible for Luge both maintained the track was safe, Kumaritashvili’s father blamed VANOC for the death. Media reports revealed that internal emails involving John Furlong, the chief executive officer of the 2010 Vancouver Games, raised concerns almost a year earlier that athletes could be injured "or worse" at the Whistler Sliding Centre – something Furlong has disputed. However, because International Luge Federation officials didn't demand changes to the track, no action was taken.

"I'm not placing blame, but there were clearly safety questions about the sliding track given the record speeds and the number of crashes on the track prior to a fatal one,” added Devlin. "When I think about the incident now, I think about a quote the Georgian president (Mikheil Saakashvili) said at the time: ‘no sports mistake is supposed to lead to a death. No sports mistake is supposed to be fatal'."

“We all felt awful for his family. I can’t imagine what that experience was like for his family back home. No one should send their son or daughter to the Olympics thinking it may be a possibility they won’t come back. It was just truly sad.”

The tragedy still leaves a black eye cloud over the Vancouver Games for many – including Devlin.

“I know the sport has its dangers, but a death? It just shouldn't happen,” Devlin said. “There's no excuse for it and it shouldn't have happened. It was an awful tragedy for his family and for his country. And it was awful for everyone who experienced it as well. “To be honest I don't know if it's John Furlong or who it is, but I think every VANOC employee who was on site that day deserves an apology.”

“From a personal standpoint, the unfortunate thing with events like this is they can come back to haunt you sometimes. I think we all have memories we'd like to forget, so I don't think I'm alone there,” Devlin added. “But of course I cannot imagine what that tragedy was like for the family. No one should ever have to deal with something like that.”

After the tragedy, the luge federation reacted by quickly placing blame on the athlete, citing inexperience of the Georgian athlete.

“There were obviously safety questions about the track. Even afterwards, during the bobsled events, there were so many crashes and injuries that it was getting ridiculous. I was holding my breath every time hoping there wouldn't be another tragedy. That just wasn’t right.”

Devlin has continued with his love of sports reporting, acting as an assistant editor for the Canadian Baseball Network and as a columnist for Metro News in London, Ont. While his passion for sport has not been extinguished by the experience, he certainly has a new perspective.

“Speed and power are also what make sport exciting, of course. And it's not just limited to sliding sports,” Devlin said. “Most sports carry some risk of injury, but death shouldn't be one of the risks. Of course, we can't ensure ultimate safety at all times, but we should try, especially at an event as big as the Olympics.”

When Shaun White pulled out of one of his two events at Sochi and both men's skiier Bode Miller and women's downhill skiiers began to critique the severity of the jumps and safety – when injuries took place on in the snowboarding events. And today, when a volunteer broke his leg at the sliding track. It all conjured up memories for Devlin a day after the four-year anniversary of the incident.

“In 2010, I recall a bobsled athlete… he decided to pull out citing safety concerns (in Vancouver) and his coach called him out,” Devlin recalled. “His teammates were upset. I can understand, especially given that it's a team sport and you're affecting other people's lives. But, I mean, the guy had a wife and kids, and his decision was to pull out. How can you blame a guy for that, really?”

“That's what I thought of when Shaun White pulled out of that event. Some things are more important than sport, and one's health and wellbeing is one of those things.”

“But I think the more important thing is situations like this shouldn't arise. When you've got a top athlete saying the course may be too dangerous, isn't that a sign maybe the course is too dangerous?”

And while Devlin has empathy for the tragic event and how it impacted the Vancouver Olympic legacy, he hopes some positive will still come from Kumaratvili’s death.

“They had a nice moment of silence at the Opening Ceremonies and put up a makeshift candlelight vigil thing in Whistler Village, which a coworker and I visited,” Devlin said, adding that perhaps the silver lining of being so close to the tragedy was that he says he now has 'perspective.'

“It could simply be age as well, but I'm a much different guy than I was before the Vancouver Games. I think I have a deeper perspective,” Devlin said. “Certainly more jaded, which is no fun, but smarter and wiser as well.”